The Coup of 19th December 1971

The month of December brings painful memories. In 1971, we lost half our country and thousands of soldiers after having fought a long civil war and a full-fledged invasion by India went into captivity. The trauma was severe and the hurt was felt most acutely at all levels. A small but significant event of those days is now largely forgotten. After the War, a group of officers in 6 Armoured Division, decided to force the military junta to relinquish power and succeeded in doing so.

Those involved in this initiative to push out the ruling clique included the colonel staff of the armoured division, Colonel Agha Javed Iqbal, the commanding officer of the Signal Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Khurshid, the commander 9 Armoured Brigade, Brigadier Iqbal Mehdi Shah, the commanding officer 9 FF, commander Corps Artillery Brigadier F.B. Ali and Colonel Aleem Afridi, Artillery. The short story is that after the ceasefire, there was a telephonic conversation between Colonel Javed Iqbal and the Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Gul Hasan Khan about the sentiments of the officers about the existing military leadership and their role in the defeat of the country. To make known their ideas, Brigadier F. B. Ali, Colonel Javed Iqbal and Colonel Aleem Afridi drafted a letter asking President Yahya to resign and hand over power or else the troops of 6 Armoured Division would march on Rawalpindi and force him out. Major General M. I. Karim, the Bengali GOC was asked to sign the letter that set out the officers’ demands. Colonel Javed Iqbal and Colonel Aleem Afridi flew to Rawalpindi and delivered the letter to the CGS, who conveyed the contents to President Yahya. The threat worked.

There is a background to these events. The junior officers clearly thought that injury was being added to the insult by Yahya’s indecision to step down. In his address to the nation that  on the 18th of December General Yahya had given no such indication and had announced that he was going to promulgate a new constitution. The officers thought that Yahya’s continued presence at the helm of affairs was neither good for the country nor for the Army. Something had to be done quickly. F.B. Ali I tried to persuade the GOC Maj. Gen. M.I. Karim, to send a message to the government about their demands. Understandably, he was hesitant to do so initially. On 9 December, F.B. Ali claims he took over the command from Gen Karim. There was no resistance, Karim had already made up his mind to opt for Bangladesh.

It was then decided that Cols. Aleem Afridi and Javed Iqbal would fly to Rawalpindi with a clear message for Yahya Khan to announce by 8 p.m. that evening that he would be handing over power to the elected representatives of the people and that all his generals responsible for the defeat would also be quitting. In case such an announcement was not made by the given time, he would be responsible for his own actions. The two officers met with Gen. Gul Hassan, Chief of the General Staff, that afternoon and asked him to convey this message to Yahya Khan. Gul Hassan went to Gen. Hamid, the Chief of Staff, who said he would arrange for a meeting with the President at 7 p.m. Gen. Hamid called several army commanders to see if they could help to restore the situation but all of them were reluctant to do anything. There was some news that some SSG troops would be sent to arrest the putsch makers but nothing of that sort happened. With no other option in sight Yahya Khan made the announcement on the appointed time to hand over power to the elected representatives of the people.

The rest as they say is history. A civilian government was swept into power immediately. That night Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto made a broadcast to the nation in which he announced the retirement of all the generals in Yahya Khan’s clique, saying that he was doing this “in accordance with the sentiments of the Armed Forces and the younger officers.” He also made Lt. Gen. Gul Hassan the Army chief, and confirmed Rahim Khan as the Air Force chief. This change in the military high command was only temporary because both the army and air force chief were subsequently relieved unceremoniously. Also the young officers, who had risked their careers, their liberty, their families, and their lives were the ultimate losers. All of them Lt. Col. Muhammad Khurshid, Col. Aleem Afridi, Col. Javed Iqbal, Brig. Iqbal Mehdi Shah and Brig F.B. Ali were summarily retired. Some of them including Ali served long jail terms. F.B. Ali at least is unrepentant and feels that all his suffering were a risk worth taking for the good of his country. Ali now lives in Canada.


1965: Time for Remembrance – Time for Introspection

Today we celebrate the 51st defence day of Pakistan. 1965 was the good war. It is worth celebrating. The soldiers fought valiantly and laid down their lives to defend their homeland. No sacrifice was too little to protect each inch of the homeland. The Pakistan Air Force subdued an enemy superior in numbers. The PAF airmen were able to outwit and out shoot the Indians. Ace pilot M.M. Alam shot down five Indian fighter jets in less than a minute. F86 sabres ruled the skies. The Navy sailed out and destroyed the Indian radar station at Dwarka. PNS Ghazi, the only submarine in the theater of war kept the only Indian aircraft carrier Vikrant out of action. The sea lines of communications remained open. The singers sang great war-songs to cheer the soldiers and to keep the morale of the nation at a high pitch. The common man was fully involved and backed the soldier to the hilt. The patriotic fervor was at its highest. The nation was united and everyone wanted the armed forces to perform well. The tales of valor of the soldiers of 1965 have been etched in the national psyche. In a way it is good because there is a need to build a positive national narrative.

There is nonetheless a need for deliberate introspection. It is a sad fact that the 1965 war was the result of a grand strategic miscalculation. Wrong lessons were drawn from the minor skirmish in the Rann of Kutch. False misconception gained roots among the civilian and military planners that the Hindu did not have an appetite for war and there would be no retaliation if a muscular approach was adopted in Kashmir. Infiltrators with little preparation and with little strategic direction were sent into occupied Kashmir in August with the purpose of initiating a guerrilla war of liberation. It was a lost cause from the word go. Grounds had not been prepared for a sustained armed struggle and the common Kashmiri was loath to become part of it. The men sent in to wage a successful insurgency were hunted down to the man. Very few were able to escape and return to tell the story. The Indians then launched a riposte across the international border. This move was entirely unexpected. The Army was in a peace time mode. If the soldiers had not risen to the occasion, the Indian generals might actually had been drinking the chota peg in Lahore gymkhana by the evening. A great tank battle was fought in Chawinda and the Indian juggernaut was brought to a halt. After 17 days the war ended. Both countries were bruised but not battered. Pakistan had miscalculated the Indian reactions. The Indians had not calculated the spirit of the Pakistani soldier. The two countries opted for a ceasefire. While Pakistan rejoiced that they had been able to stop a far superior enemy and defend its soil with grit and determination. The Indians straight away went to the drawing board. Their aim was simple and to the point: Defeat Pakistan at all costs. Their plan was also simple: Tear the country asunder. They had an ideal opportunity to create a rift between East and West Pakistan based on the recent war. The played upon East Pakistan’s fears that they had been left alone to fend for themselves during the War, since it had been fought within the framework of the defence doctrine based on the theory that the defence of the east lay in the west. Hatred was sown into the hearts and minds of the East Pakistanis. They were made to believe that West Pakistanis were insincere. They were using the foreign exchange through the export of jute grown by them to build their new capital in Islamabad. They had very little representation in government jobs and the defence forces. Very few of them were generals or federal secretaries. The venom spread. The result was that only six years later there was a civil war in East Pakistan. The Indians waited nine months till the small Pakistani garrison was spent and fatigued and then in November 1971 their tanks rolled in against little resistance. 16 December the Pakistani soldiers tired and humiliated surrendered to the Indian forces. This was the darkest day in the short history of Pakistan. The Indians are still conniving against Pakistan. While we celebrate 1965, we should not be oblivious of the fact that forces hostile to Pakistan are still at work. The solution lies in not only building a strong Army but also a strong nation.

Pakistan zindabad.

The Cost of 1965 War

6 September 2015 is being celebrated across Pakistan as the golden jubilee anniversary of the Pakistani defence of the homeland against Indian aggression. The day has been marked by special supplements in the newspapers, remembrance programs on the television, two minutes silence in the morning to commemorate the martyrs of the war and a spectacular air display in the capital city. Thousands of citizens watched with bated breath as jet fighters performed aerobatic rolls and pull ups at supersonic speeds.

For me it has been a day of serious reflection. My father was an officer in the air force and I witnessed the 1965 war first hand as a child at an air force base. It seemed a lot of fun then as we heard sirens wailing and sitting in trenches for the duration of the air raids, which used to take place it seemed on fixed hours at dawn and dusk. Most of the time, the Indian pilots were in a rush to dispense with the bombs they were carrying and to rush back to the safety of their own air space that they rarely found their targets. Once they did hit some houses in the vicinity of the Peshawar air base leaving behind some injured people cursing them for their poor marksmanship.

Much later I served in the armed forces. My career stretched over better part of four decades. I did not participate in any full-fledged war but I had my share of excitement and rush of adrenaline as I experienced enemy bullets fired from across the Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir. I was also part of a number of military mobilizations in anticipation of a war. After so many years as a citizen of the country and as a former soldier, I wonder what indeed are the takeaways from the 1965 War?

The war that we celebrate as the good war was preceded by an infiltration across the LOC. The purpose of the so-called Operation Gibraltar was to defreeze the Kashmir issue, which the political leadership felt was losing significance. It is widely believed in Pakistan that General Ayub Khan was led up the garden path by the hawkish foreign minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had convinced him that such an enterprise would remain localised and would not be responded to by the Indian army across the international border. One wonders if Ayub Khan was so naïve that he was so easily duped by his youthful minister. Bhutto would later unseat him from power by leading a popular agitation against the so-called sell out at Tashkent. The general populace was led to believe that the agreement brokered by the Soviets between Pakistan and India was a betrayal to the blood of the martyrs. It was surmised that Shastri died in Tashkent after the declaration was announced because he couldn’t contain his happiness for getting from Pakistan what he could not on the battlefield.

The infiltration in Kashmir by irregulars supported by Pakistan had predictable results. The Indians first responded in occupied Kashmir by occupying the Haji Pir Pass and Kargil. The infiltrators couldn’t convince the unprepared Kashmiris to raise lashkars for mounting a freedom movement. Indian army launched a scorched earth policy and were soon able to evict or round up most of the infiltrators. Operation Grand Slam was mounted to balance the situation. Pakistani armor crossed the working boundary to occupy Chamb and moved towards Akhnur. The operation lost momentum after initial successes because of an operational pause to allow a mysterious change of command to take place. After all this noise and fury in the Kashmir Valley and Jammu, international actors including the UN called for restraint. This, however, gave the Indians enough reason to launch a multipronged offensive across the international border towards Sialkot and Lahore. Pakistani forces were caught unaware but as an equally tentative Indian advance guard stopped within stone throw of Lahore, Pakistan was able to recover and put a strong defence. This is where the courage of the soldier and the initiative of the junior officer came to the fore and resulted in saving the country. A counter offensive by Pakistani 1st armored division petered out, when the logistics failed to keep pace with tanks that had debouched from the bridgehead and had raced past Khem Karan. At nightfall the tanks pulled back into the leaguers for replenishment, allowing the Indian defenders to flood the paddy fields making it impossible for the tanks to advance any further.

During the 1965 War, the nation was gripped by a patriotic fervor. Soul stirring patriotic songs sung by the legendary Noor Jahan and Mehdi Hasan were produced and played to exhort the soldier to stand fast and to pay tribute to his incomparable courage and valor. The masses rooted for their armed forces and lapped up each word that the government controlled radio and the press said about stunning victories. Kashmir seemed within the grasp of the freedom fighters. In all this show of patriotism, what did not become immediately visible was the reaction of the East Pakistani. The policy of the defence of East lies in the West brought home the reality to the people in East Pakistan that they were actually left to fend for themselves. This became the beginning of the six points propagated by the Awami League, in which inter alia they demanded the right to raise militias to defend themselves. In six short years the Bengalis would secede from West Pakistan because they sincerely felt that the West Pakistani leaders were not sincere to them and that the defence of Lahore meant more to them than the welfare and prosperity of the eastern wing.

Kashmir cause was indeed briefly revived but mostly it was a losing battle on the diplomatic and political front. American aid was suspended and the Kashmir issue lost appeal with countries that mattered. Pakistan was no longer a dependable ally and its image as a progressive country among the Muslim nations lost its sheen. Pakistan’s economy that was experiencing a remarkable growth lost steam and spluttered as the costs of war mounted. The 1971 war would put paid to Pakistan’s ambition of becoming the leading nation in Asia.

There is no gainsaying the fact that whereas, the soldier rose to the occasion in 1965, the national leadership grossly failed to achieve the desired results. It had not reckoned with an attack across the international border. It was not prepared for the costs of the infiltration in Kashmir. It had no appetite for a prolonged war. The actual war lasted only 17 days and the government heaved a sigh of relief once the ceasefire took place because of the intervention of the great powers.  The trust of the East Pakistanis was lost forever and became one of the reasons that they decided to go their separate way. The Kashmir issue lost its genuineness in the UN and other international fora. Pakistan could never recover economically from the aftereffects of the war.